Anarchy has rarely seemed a more sedate business than it does in “The Anarchists,” a handsomely mounted, even more handsomely cast costumer for which a few anachronistic song choices rep the full extent of its radicalism. Effectively a formulaic undercover cop thriller dressed up — and gorgeously so — in fin-de-siecle garb, Elie Wajeman’s polished sophomore feature stars Tahar Rahim as a sensitive police brigadier tapped to infiltrate the individualist anarchist community in 1899 Paris. With Adele Exarchopoulos cast opposite him as a passionate, persuasive young member of the movement, it’s clear from the outset that Wajeman’s lean narrative will not be rebelling against conformity. Still, the two stars are never less than a pleasure to watch, giving this atypically glamorous Critics’ Week curtain-raiser a measure of international distribution potential.
“You think a flat cap and a scarf make you an anarchist,” says a member of the group contemptuously to Jean (Rahim) — who is, as we already know, even more of a pretender than he appears to be. The speaker’s skepticism may be justified, but when it comes to being an anarchist, Wajeman’s film doesn’t make it abundantly clear what else it takes. The politics and principles of individualist anarchism — its varied philosophies stressing the importance of individual will over mass government — are glossed over in the script, co-written by the helmer and Gaelle Mace, which places greater emphasis on the sheer romance of rebellion. In more ways than one, too: “Love made me an anarchist,” says Judith (Exarchopoulos), an aspiring teacher who also happens to be the g.f. of ambitious group leader Elisee (Swann Arlaud). With love and a good scarf, then, it would appear that anarchism is one’s oyster.
Judith makes the above statement in a pre-credits interview sequence, played with brittle reserve (and in besotted closeup) by Exarchopoulos, in which she explains to an unseen interrogator the harsh circumstances that led her to the anarchist movement. It’s an arresting opening, but also a misleading one, giving the impression that this will primarily be Judith’s story, told with a forward-thinking feminist outlook. As it turns out, Judith’s most candid expressions of feeling only bookend the film; in between, its perspective is principally that of Jean. A man with no firm personal attachments or deep political convictions, Jean learns that his noncommittal nature is a virtue in the eyes of his police department, who require a dispassionate corporal to bring the movement down from the inside.
Posing as a nail-factory worker, he falls in with Elisee’s aggressively idealistic crew, whose activism takes a criminal turn when they begin burgling the homes of the bourgeoisie. All the while, Jean reports back to his callous superior, Gaspar (filmmaker and sometime actor Cedric Kahn, excellent), though it doesn’t take long for the young stool pigeon to begin questioning where his sympathies truly lie. Further drawing them to the other side of the law, of course, is his growing, tensely reciprocated attraction to the conflicted Judith. It’s a story that’s been spun umpteen times in a range of social contexts, though the milieu of bohemian Paris at least gives this permutation a tobacco-scented smokescreen of intrigue.
Wajeman further drives home the era-blurring genre trappings of his story by having his cast speak a distinctly contemporary strain of French, though his dialogue isn’t averse to a little melodrama. (“What are you afraid of?” Jean asks Judith. “Of getting an arrow through my heart,” comes the earnest reply.) The actors, several of them returning from Wajeman’s promising 2012 debut, “Aliyah,” maintain their cool throughout, in more ways than one. Rahim, here nattily mustachioed, is such a crafty, taciturn onscreen listener that this kind of man-between role comes naturally to him; he has slow-burning chemistry, too, with the similarly attentive, quietly expressive Exarchopoulos.
Everyone looks a million francs, meanwhile, under the shadowed, chambray-toned gaze of David Chizallet’s camera, while the high-style costumes by Anais Romand (“Saint Laurent”) put a sleek, stylized latter-day spin even on basic items of 19th-century men’s workwear. As a means of intuitively updating the period piece, her contribution is more subtly effective than Wajeman’s occasional flooding of the soundtrack with rock and reggae selections from the likes of the Kinks and Ken Boothe, which don’t serve the piece either atmospherically or thematically; the helmer would appear to be reaching for Bertrand Bonello-level perversity here, but hasn’t quite the anarchic swagger to pull it off.